Boehner's tech legacy (seriously)

Boehner photo by Gage Skidmore / Photo Illustration by FCW

Boehner photo by Gage Skidmore / photo illustration by FCW

Outgoing House Speaker John Boehner might be better remembered for public bouts of weeping and a private fondness for red wine and cigarettes. But as the Ohioan prepares to leave office amid a political struggle over the direction of the Republican caucus, it's a good time to reflect on a surprising aspect of Boehner's legacy: promoting open data in government.

Smaller government, big data

"From the start of his speakership, Boehner has been a leader in pushing the house towards adopting structured data formats for legislation," Hudson Hollister, founder and director of the Data Transparency Coalition, told FCW.

Hollister, a former House staffer who helped draft early iterations of the Data Accountability and Transparency Act, dreams of a   government open to the public, in which legislative bills are linked and searchable in XML, new legislation automatically updates the online text of the laws modified, and federal dollars can be tracked from the level of appropriations through obligations, to actual spending.

Boehner helped get the House closer to that vision, Hollister said.

Only a few months after taking the speaker’s gavel, Boehner joined then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.)  in sending a letter to the Clerk of the House calling for open legislative data standards.

It took three years, but the Boehner-Cantor team helped shepherd the DATA Act from bill into law.

Despite a steep price tag from the Congressional Budget Office – $300 million over 4 years – Boehner rallied the House to pass the bill twice before the Senate deigned to take up the legislation.

From the Tea Party to the most liberal members of Congress, "both sides of the aisle worked together" on data and transparency issues under Boehner’s leadership, said Matt Rumsey, senior policy analyst at the Sunlight Foundation.

Improving data quality is one part of Boehner's legacy, Rumsey noted, while the "openness of the House itself" is another, and Boehner came out strongly in favor of the release of bulk legislative data.

"From my point of view, the workings of the Congress need to be available to the American people," said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). "It's their government and the more transparent we can make it, the better."

Underestimated impact

"These issues are never going to rise to the level of public notice," that mainstream, hot-button issues enjoy, Rumsey noted.

"These policy changes are technical, they're not sexy politically, and yet they're so consequential when it comes to connecting Congress to the people they serve," Hollister added.

Boehner's leadership helped move these unsexy-but-critical issues forward, but of course, government still has a ways to go.

Agencies are still hashing out how they'll present financial information to the American people, Data Act definitions still need hammering out, and the House and Senate need to join forces in a unified data structure, Hollister said, to reach the "Holy Grail" of sensible, tech-bettered open governance.

But in the House, Boehner "laid the groundwork," Hollister said.

"The House is worlds ahead of the Senate" on such tech issues as recording, publishing and tagging video, he added (though the Senate is catching up on bulk data publication).

Were there missed opportunities for Boehner to lead, technologically?

"I think it's less about 'missed opportunities' and more about what's left to be done," Sunlight's Rumsey said. "The government needs to think differently about technology."

Of course, Boehner's pushes for better data quality and more openness came with a Republican penchant for reducing spending -- but even there, he may have helped spur innovative approaches, if inadvertently.

"The Obama administration has done some innovative things to show that technology doesn't always have to cost what the government is paying for it," Rumsey said of budget crunches, pointing to the General Services Administration’s 18F, which launched in 2014 and has already gained a reputation for agile, disruptive work.  He added, "Obviously, investment from Congress is always going to be important."

About the Author

Zach Noble is a staff writer covering digital citizen services, workforce issues and a range of civilian federal agencies.

Before joining FCW in 2015, Noble served as assistant editor at the viral news site TheBlaze, where he wrote a mix of business, political and breaking news stories and managed weekend news coverage. He has also written for online and print publications including The Washington Free Beacon, The Santa Barbara News-Press, The Federalist and Washington Technology.

Noble is a graduate of Saint Vincent College, where he studied English, economics and mathematics.

Click here for previous articles by Noble, or connect with him on Twitter: @thezachnoble.


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